A place for the writings and the ideas of the people in and around (and coming to the attention of) the Ridenbaugh Press.


Ken Robison was a public man, in many senses of the term. He was a journalist, one of the most visible in Idaho for a decade and more. He was a state legislator (and in between his many successful elections, a candidate) over a span even longer. He was a civic activist and, more recently, an author.

Even so, after his death at Boise last week, no public services were held – at his request. And that seems entirely in character.

Though Robison was a public man, he did not go public because he enjoyed publicity or acclaim, or because he was such a social person – he did not seem to reach out for any of those things. Robison was a public man because of the cause, or rather causes, he was captivated by and that he undertook, and dominated much of his life.

To do that meant moving out of his profession. Robison was a news reporter at Pocatello (for the Idaho State Journal), the Associated Press in Boise and Denver, and for the Idaho Statesman at Boise. He had been in the trade for only about a decade when he was named editorial page editor at the Statesman, relatively young for that job, and he might have moved upward in the news business.

Instead, he moved more and more toward wild lands and wildlife conservation, writing about Hells Canyon and the White Clouds, about protecting wildlife and designating wilderness. Much of what he wrote was several years ahead of the general public discussion, for which he received national attention for his editorials but which also led him increasingly away from the news business. He became active and involved in conservation efforts around the state.

He became interested in taxes, too, but not in the way many tax activists, fixated on tax cuts, are. True to his in-depth researching nature, he dug into the way taxes are structured, into who paid what and who seemed to be overpaying their share. He was one of the leaders behind the 1982 initiative for the 50 percent homeowner property tax exemption, which has reshaped Idaho tax law ever since.

Quiet and low-key, Robison didn’t present himself the way most gregarious politicians do, but having concluded he could make more progress as a public official, he decided to run for the legislature. Thorough as always, he threw himself into intensive campaigning. He lost his first race for the state Senate in 1978, won his second (in the Republican year of 1980), lost his third. Four years later he won election to the House in Boise’s north end district, and kept on representing it for the next 18 years.

The Idaho Legislature proved a tough crowd to convince, more so as the years went on, and Robison was often on the minority side of things.

But the causes never went away, and he never forgot them.

After leaving the legislature he intensively researched and wrote a book, Defending Idaho’s Natural Heritage, which was published in 2014. It consists of a series of stories about the battles over conserving Idaho’s wild places and creatures, and it was dedicated “to all those who spoke up for fish and wildlife habitat, for flowing rivers and for exceptional natural areas.”

When eventually someone writes a successor book to that one, they’ll have to include Ken Robison.

And not just because of the specific contributions he made toward those efforts, but also because of the way he provided a role model for civic activism.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


Here is one of the ways this year’s presidential campaign is so unusual:

The elected officials from one of the two major parties are split on their nominee, but more than that, it is the in-party supporters to that nominee who will have a much harder time explaining themselves, down the road.

Presidential nominee Donald Trump has divided Republicans nationwide, and no less in the gem state. Of Idaho’s five major officials, there’s (as this is written) an even split, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter (who has a position in the Trump campaign) and Representative Raul Labrador sticking with Trump, and Senator Mike Crapo and Representative Mike Simpson in opposition. Senator Jim Risch, reportedly was out of state and apparently not weighed in.

The kind of rejection of one’s party nominee Crapo and Simpson have made is rare coming from elected officials in either party, especially those in the upper rungs. I can’t recall any similar, after the party nominations were made official, in Idaho in the last half-century. Crapo and Simpson are not the kind, either, to lightly abandon their party; over the years they have been as loyal to the Republican brand as any party loyalist could ask. Something really powerful must have blown them loose. (Neither, I should note, has gone as far as endorsing Democrat Hillary Clinton.)

Crapo cited Trump’s “pattern of behavior …. His repeated actions and comments toward women have been disrespectful, profane and demeaning. I have spent more than two decades working on domestic violence prevention. Trump’s most recent excuse of ‘locker room talk’ is completely unacceptable and is inconsistent with protecting women from abusive, disparaging treatment.”

Simpson said he found “his recent comments about women deplorable. In my opinion, he has demonstrated that he is unfit to be President and I cannot support him.”

The large and fast-growing record of Trump statements and incidents concerning women offers plenty of backing for those statements. But you have to wonder. For these two to split from Trump, surely there was more than just a collection of statements and incidents, many of them years old.

If you listen to the ideas offered by Idaho’s congressional delegation, and its governor, over the years, you get little overlap with Trumpism. (Maybe Idaho’s Republican voters saw that in the primary contest, when the state went for Ted Cruz over Trump.)

Trumpism has attracted and closely allied itself with white supremacists and hard core nationalists of the kind Idaho, and many of its top officials, have been trying to shake off for years. Trump’s Florida speech Thursday would have gone over well at the old Aryan Nations compound.

Trumpism has no consistent policy. Those Republicans worried about who Hillary Clinton might appoint to the Supreme Court should reflect that no one (likely including Trump) has any idea who the orange whirlwind actually would appoint. Trump on any substantial topic is a spinning wheel; I can point you to 18 distinct changes of position on his hallmark issue – immigration – alone. Conservative? Liberal? Those concepts don’t seem to be understood by, and are unimportant to, Trump. Forget about any certainty.

Except this: A strong predisposition to authoritarianism, or more bluntly, an American dictatorship. Republicans no less than Democrats have raised this concern. Congress? The Supreme Court? Unimportant, along with participation by the American people. (He seems no more interested in the states, or in the 10th amendment.) Trump’s answer to all problems and issues, devoid of explanation, is what he said at the Republican National Convention and repeated since: “I alone can fix it.” He alone – no one else. You think the federal government has been too powerful? Wait ’til you get a load of this guy.

This is a Republican who doesn’t talk about freedom or liberty or opportunity, but about “safety” and “winning” and “getting tough.” His is the speech of a dictator, not an American politician.

Trump runs directly counter to nearly everything leading Idaho Republicans have said, over generations, that they support. The next time Otter or Labrador tell you how much they love freedom, state’s rights and the reputation of Idaho, ask them why they supported Trump. You may find Crapo and Simpson won’t have nearly as much trouble with the question.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


In the May primary election, candidates for an open state Supreme Court seat included two of the most deeply qualified candidates for the high bench in the state’s history. The voters didn’t choose either of them.

But then, qualifications can come in many flavors. They differ considerably between the two remaining candidates, Robyn Brody and Curt McKenzie, competing for the seat now held by Chief Justice Jim Jones.

Jones had an extensive history in partisan politics, running unsuccessfully in a Republican primary for Congress (against an incumbent) in 1978 and 1980, then successfully as a Republican for attorney general in 1982 and 1986, finally losing a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 1990 to Larry Craig.

Quite a few Idaho justices have had background in the give and take of partisan politics, and that can be an asset on the bench. We tend to forget it now but many federal Supreme Court justices through our history had extensive political histories too, and we probably are not well served by limiting the roster of justices to veteran judges and law professors. People who come from other perspectives and especially from politics, where they typically have to work with a variety of real-world situations and viewpoints, could contribute a great deal.

So the idea, which seems to have spread widely, that McKenzie’s legislative background ought to be a black mark against him, doesn’t really work. As a resume point, it seems more a plus than a minus.

There are other kinds of background that would be useful on the court.

Most recent Idaho Supreme Court justices have come from either lower benches or from the top law firms in the state, mainly in Boise. Jones is the near-exception in the current group (the attorney general’s office can be considered the state’s biggest law firm); Daniel Eismann, Roger Burdick and Joel Horton all were district judges, and Warren Jones was a top litigator with one of the leading private firms in Boise, Eberle Berlin.

Compare that with this from a description (in the Spokane Spokesman-Review) of attorney Brody: “Robyn Brody’s law office in downtown Rupert is right next door to the police station and not far from the courthouse and City Hall. ‘I get a lot of walk-in traffic,’ she said. It could be someone needing help appealing their unemployment decision, or seeking information on how to get a marriage license. Her law practice includes that work, plus water law, an array of business clients, major real estate transactions, and representing a local hospital, several community health centers and two school districts.”

An attorney doesn’t get much more grounded than that. A small-town attorney taking in such a wide range of law work may not develop super-deep specialized expertise, but probably will have a strong sense of how those decisions emanating from Boise hit home in the far reaches of the state. It’s not glamorous or especially prestigious, but it sure is real. And, while several of the current justices (Eismann, Burdick, Jones) do have some small-town law practice experience, that’s awhile back in their pasts, mediated through years on the bench. (Candidate McKenzie practices in the Boise, and his experience would be mediated through statehouse legislative experience.) Brody’s background would bring something to the court that isn’t there now.

Brody also brings more to the table. She has worked for a larger firm (Hepworth Lezamiz & Hohnhorst in Twin Falls), and has background in Idaho (and as far away as Russia) to broaden her horizons. She evidently has a good reputation with her peers, serving in leadership in the regional bar association, usually a positive indicator for a prospective judge.

Without party labels (either explicit or implicit) as guidance, Idaho voters will need to look deeper to make their choices for the Supreme Court.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


Those who reflexively find private ownership and control freeing and liberating, and government control and ownership the reverse, will find a conundrum here.

About 305 hunters, some Idahoans and some from out of state, were eagerly anticipating the opening of hunting season to start tracking down elk in certain southern parts of Idaho backcountry, pieces of which are publicly-owned, but much of which was long owned by Potlatch Corporation and Boise Cascade. Those companies generally did not object, though they could have, to the hunters being there or pursuing game.

Recently, however, Potlatch sold many of their large tracts, reported to consist of about 172,000 acres, to DF Development, a Texas property development firm led by members of the Wilks family. The Wilkses have been, as Rocky Barker reported in the Idaho Statesman, “buying up land all over the West, and closing off much of the access to those lands. . . . The Wilkses are closing off the timberlands to hunting and other recreation. They already canceled leases with Valley County to maintain roads that provided access to snowmobile trails on public land.”

The hunters, who were left with little area to hunt, were stunned. But there wasn’t much they could do. Local communities around Adams and Valley counties and their leaders were likewise left with few options. They faced the loss of a big part of the outdoors attractions they depend on to bring people to the area; many places where people have enjoyed the backcountry now were off limits. And with the loss of access comes significant loss of revenue to local businesses.

That Valley-Adams buy was the second really large Idaho lands purchase by the Wilkses. In 2015 they were reported to have purchased 38,000 acres in Idaho County, and there too promptly cut off recreation access.

These are only a part of the family’s massive land buys around the West.

Attempts on the part of Idahoans, including private citizens and the Department of Fish and Game (which has tried to mediate), have had little success. Maybe the Wilkses may have figured Idahoans wouldn’t object, on political grounds.

They have been major multi-million dollar donors to the presidential campaign of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who was the top choice in Idaho’s presidential primary this year. Cruz has suggested that Texas, which (surprisingly given the size of the state) has almost no federal public lands, should be a public lands model for the nation. In 2014, Cruz proposed an amendment to a sportsman’s law capping the amount of federal lands in any one state, and forcing federal agencies to either give to the states or sell to the top bidder any overages. Late last year, he told the Review-Journal in Las Vegas, “I believe we should transfer as much federal land as possible back to the states and ideally back to the people.”

The point, as he explained it, was to maximize freedom.

Freedom for some, apparently those like the Wilks, but not for all. It’s a diminished freedom for the hunters and other recreationists who find that a decision by the new land owners – one that could have been made by previous owners, but wasn’t possibly in the interest of good will, has significantly cut their options.

As compared to publicly-owned lands where hunting, fishing and recreating may be regulated but still are broadly allowed.

Try applying all this to the formula of private=free, public=locked up, and you’ll quickly wrap yourself in pretzels. Or maybe the ideologues among us simply need to come up with new and more creative definitions for words like “freedom.”

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


When Republican Senator Mike Crapo was last up for election, and was overwhelmingly favored for a re-election he easily won in a landslide, he showed a little vulnerability at one point.

That was amidst his debate with Democrat Tom Sullivan, who lobbed one tough debate point after another at Crapo. In Idaho terms it was not out of bounds but was pungent. What went on inside Crapo’s mind only he knows, but he looked to be steaming, furious, and he didn’t come across well. If the race with Sullivan had been close, it might have been seriously up for grabs after that debate.

Crapo’s first Senate debate, in 1998, was a different matter. There, his sparring with Democratic Boise attorney Bill Mauk was no less intense than the 2010 model. But it also was so high-minded, so intelligently geared to ideas and issues that people spoke of it afterwards in terms of being Idaho’s version of a Lincoln-Douglas debate. It may be the best joint debate performance I’ve ever seen in Idaho. One of the things it accomplished was this: Whether you were a Republican or a Democrat, you got your side of the case made solidly by those two candidates.

Today, if you’re an Idaho Republican, you may not feel as if you need your side of the case explained: Unless the state this year takes an abrupt left turn from what it’s done for the last quarter-century, it will vote down the line Republican, mostly if not entirely in landslides. Still, absent some kind of formalized debate – and Idaho’s debate structure is better formalized than some states have – there’s no explanation for it. An unchallenged position can become a mindless one.

But if you’re an Idaho Democrat, when you heard that the state’s three Democratic candidates for Congress – Jerry Sturgill for the Senate and James Piotrowski and Jennifer Martinez for the House – all missed the filing deadline for the debates, you probably were appalled. The phrase “political malpractice” circulated around Democratic circles, and for good reason.

For Democrats, the debates are not only the best place during campaign season they have to make their own case, and the best place to criticize the Republicans, they’re also the one singular spot where they’re on a playing field with Republicans that’s level. Differences in money, in organization, in incumbency, in interest groups – none of it matters.

In a debate, there’s just two candidates saying their piece. It’s the most dramatic point in a campaign: Two antagonists going head to head. The presidential debate on Monday will get a big audience for that reason. The Idaho debates could draw a decent audience too, in Idaho terms. They still have the potential to change a few minds.

How it happened that all three Democratic congressional candidates missed the deadline for filing is unclear. The Idaho Debates organization, which includes people from Idaho Public Television, the League of Women Voters and the Idaho Press Club, for years have been the organizers of the state’s only statewide debate series; the filings they require are intended among other things to show that the candidates involved are running serious campaigns.

The Democratic candidates and the state party were, at this writing, trying to put together another debate series through some other media outlets. Whether they can get the media support and the Republicans to go along is another question.

Incumbents generally would just as soon pass on debates if they can; it’s probably the most stressful single point along the way for a strongly-favored incumbent, as the current Idaho three are.

But they could pick up some points for participating. And it would keep them in practice for when the next closer call comes around. In the larger picture, everyone gets something useful out of campaign debates, even if it’s sometimes just an uncomfortable look in the mirror. Or sometimes, a stretch into stronger thinking and communicating.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


In this time of Trump, let’s review the Redoubt.

Idahoans have had an awareness of this sort-of phenomenon for some time, especially but not exclusively those in the north. It is listed in Wikipedia, where the descriptive article about it begins, “The American Redoubt is a political migration movement first proposed in 2011 by best-selling survivalist novelist and blogger James Wesley Rawles which designates three states in the northwestern United States (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming), and adjoining portions of two other states (eastern Oregon, and eastern Washington) as a safe haven for conservative, libertarian-leaning Christians and Jews.”

It isn’t just a call from a messiah, though. An article about the Redoubt from last May in the Spokane Spokesman-Review was headlined, “Extreme right invites like-minded to region.”

The area overall is said to have attracted thousands of people, though no one knows for sure how many.

No one knows for sure what its political impact may be, either.

It sounds like the kind of movement that might find common cause with the Donald Trump campaign, and maybe many of its people do. That too is hard to know, because so many of them are determinedly off the grid, unallied with large organizations, even those as disorganized as the Trump campaign.

But if so, it does not seem to be taking over. In Idaho, the core of the Redoubt area is in the Panhandle, and in the May primary election Texas Senator Ted Cruz won all of the Panhandle except for Shoshone County(a relatively lightly-populated area); Trump won mainly in the areas that were more remote still, outside the areas usually classed as the Redoubt.

A late August article in the Washington Post on the Redoubt, a well-crafted piece focusing on Idaho, missed most of the recent electoral context, which extended beyond the presidential level.

An opinion piece on the Spokesman-Review web site on September 1 noted, “reasonable Republicans largely prevailed during the Idaho primary in May. Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger easily beat his ‘constitutionalist’ sheriff opponent. Jim Chmelik, one of the region’s leading proponents for public land takeovers, lost his bid for re-election as Idaho County commissioner. Four far-right incumbent legislators in North Idaho were defeated. So, in the short term, it would appear as if the majority of Idahoans haven’t bought into the fear-based agenda of the extreme right. They don’t envision teeming hordes streaming out of the Lilac City.”

I don’t mean here to conflate the Redoubters of today with the Aryan Nations Neo-Nazi gaggle of yesteryear – gone now, happily, for more than a decade – except for this: The actual numerical influence of both probably has been and now is being overstated. Back in the Aryans’ day, some member of that tribe (on one occasion, head honcho Richard Butler himself) would run for a local office, and invariably collect no more than a handful of votes, losing in an overwhelming rout. That part of the Aryan story didn’t often get as much play as their parades or other activities that seemed to puff up their visibility and seeming size and influence.

That could change with the Redoubters. In theory, it could affect this next election. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


When this summer Idaho’s Department of Education brought on board a new legislative liaison, the choice was someone highly unusual: An outsider.

Maybe that has to do with the recent outsider status of the person who did the hiring. But it’s different enough, and the prospects for change in Idaho’s school policies partly as a result, that it shouldn’t pass without notice.

If you hang around the Idaho Statehouse, and nearby buildings, long enough, you find that job titles often change faster than the people do.

If you’re a journalist covering state government, you may wind up in your next career move working, most often as a press spokesman, for one of the people you used to cover. You can find examples in the governor’s and attorney general’s offices, among other places.

And if you’re a legislator or legislative staffer, there’s plenty of precedent for going to work in a lobbying or similar legislative-related role afterward. The list of registered lobbyists includes a lot of people who know the legislature, it’s people and byways, because they’ve worked there in other capacities.

This isn’t especially horrible. It has the advantage of building institutional memory in the larger community around state government. But it does become incestuous. And a very subtle kind of bias starts to develop, involving people who have been on the inside, and those who haven’t, who in turn may find themselves disadvantaged when legislative season comes around.

When Sherri Ybarra, who was elected superintendent of public instruction in 2014, arrived as a surprise winner and definitely a political outsider, she initially made the kind of choice for legislative liaison that many others in a similar position would have made. She appointed Tim Corder, a former state senator, who had lost a recent primary seeking re-election, but had built some good will around the Statehouse during his time there.

Corder stayed only a little more than a year. A bit more established in place by then, Ybarra decided to move in a different direction to replace him.

Early in her term, Ybarra obtained planning help from a national association of her counterparts (the Council of Chief State School Officers), and it sent to Idaho one of its analysts, a former teacher and policy specialist named Duncan Robb. As the Idaho Ed News reported, “something clicked.”

It quoted Robb as saying, “When I would take a visit I’d make jokes and comments about how much I like it here. . . . I think they knew I would be interested, and they let me know when the position was open.”

Robb isn’t steeped in the people and ways of the Idaho Legislature, but he does bring an unusually broad background for working in a state education department. He grew up in California, and earned a master’s in public policy at Johns Hopkins University at Baltimore. He has taught math in big-city schools in Houston and worked with state-level education policy makers around the country.

The sometimes arcane approach to effective lobbying, which the already-insider group brings with it, is one area where he may still have a learning cure. Assuming he masters that, the payoff – in bringing an unusually broad background and expertise to bear on working with the Idaho Legislature – could be large.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


A few years back, when Idaho legislators debated whether to establish a state insurance exchange program under the Affordable Care Act, I criticized most of them for an obsession, not with the health of uninsured Idahoans, but with the perceived evils of the federal government.

Today, the exchange in Idaho is established, popular, heavily used and without doubt saving lives and improving health. Debate has nonetheless continued over what to do about the 78,000 Idahoans who earn too little to qualify for participation in the exchange and get payment help for health care – if at all – through a state and local government catastrophic health program, which pays hospitals for some emergency care no one else will compensate. The answer adopted by 31 states, and proposed by many in Idaho, is to allow expansion of Medicaid to cover the 78,000.

After four years of that debate, some progress: At least now, they’re talking to a significant degree about health care. Progress should be noted where it happens.

But don’t consider the progress, even after four years with a good, working example right in front of them, too spectacular.

The most recent discussion of Medicaid expansion came in an interim legislative committee on August 29. The pro side included savings of many millions of dollars (now paid out in expensive emergency medical care costs) to state and local governments, clear help for the health of many Idahoans and overwhelmingly positive public comments to legislative and others panels over four years. And on the other side?

Senator Steve Thayn said he doubts federal rules on food stamps or Medicaid encourages people to become productive. “If we’re really, truly looking at an Idaho solution, we need to look at what we can do with Idaho money, Idaho rules, and what we can do to change the cost of medical care.”

What is that exactly – we’d all love to know – and if there are such options why has no one found them in the last four years?

Representative Judy Boyle of Midvale: “I think we’ve heard of some other [non-Medicaid] options. … I think we can come up with a really good solution that fits Idaho.”

What sort of options? There’s a non-profit from Seattle that arranges for free care for some low-income people. And a lone (apparently) Idaho Falls physician who takes no insurance payments, just charges very low rates and keeps his overhead down. Interesting instances both, but if you ask why they’re not more widespread – nothing in the Affordable Care Act or other law is stopping them – you’ve halfway answered your question. Or just ask your local hospital or physician why they’re not doing it this way. Their responses would run much longer than this column, but probably point out the many costs, services and risks left addressed by operating essentially as a pure charity.

Limiting costs is a great thing to do, would be smart to bear in mind, and must be part of where health care planning goes in the years to come, but it won’t be easy. Finding ways to do it everywhere in the health care system would be useful work for lawmakers and others for years to come.

In the meantime, 78,000 Idahoans are stuck in a holding pattern of being without health care coverage except the most expensive kind (in crisis condition in hospital emergency rooms) which when paid for at all is paid by local taxpayers or by hospitals who pass on the costs to everyone else. It is a nonsensical system, both in terms of finance and health. The most positive spin for not improving it seems to be that some people insist on finding perfectly satisfying answers, in opposition to merely fostering public health and saving lives.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


“We narrowly lost that race but our message of empowerment, advancement and citizen-led state control over federal dependency resonated loudly. I’m pleased to communicate that I will be continuing that mission as a candidate for governor in 2018.”

The speaker was former state Senator Russ Fulcher, a Meridian Republican who ran in the Republican primary for governor in 2014 – losing to incumbent C.L. “Butch” Otter – announcing last week, in mid-2016, about his upcoming return to the governor’s race in 2018.

The news came on a slickly-produced 1:44 video that almost could have doubled as a campaign ad except that this was just the announcement of a forthcoming campaign.

There really is no break in this anymore, is there?

That’s not meant as a slap at Fulcher. As you’ll probably recall, he’s the second major candidate for governor in 2018, the first being Lieutenant Governor Brad Little, an Otter appointee who has been widely considered the governor-in-waiting for about seven years now. Because much of the support base for Fulcher overlaps with that of Representative Raul Labrador, who has also often been mentioned as a 2018 gubernatorial prospect, this may be an indicator Labrador won’t be running for that office. At least, in 2018.

It also sets up a near rerun of the contest from 2014, when Fulcher’s run against Otter was prompted in large part because of Otter’s support for the state health insurance exchange. Fulcher’s 2014 web site said, “Federal policies in the areas of healthcare, education, and the environment are stripping freedoms from Idahoans and placing them in the hands of government bureaucrats. This became glaringly evident in 2013, when the Idaho Legislature, led by Governor Butch Otter, voluntarily embraced Obamacare, thereby placing Idaho as a partner of the federal government in implementing a healthcare law that Idahoans do not want and cannot afford.”

If Otter won’t be on the ballot, Little, who has been as loyal a lieutenant as a governor could ask for, will be a good stand in.

But some other things have changed and will change between 2014 and 2018. Here are a couple.

The so-controversial health insurance marketplace is part of the health and financial environment now, and about 100,000 Idahoans receive health insurance coverage in whole or part because of it. Campaigning against federal intrusion is never a loser in Idaho, but campaigning to kick 100,000 people off health insurance almost surely would be. The subjects and approach of a Fulcher campaign would almost have to change somewhat from 2014, or face a revolt. Or a loss to Little.

The other change is harder to estimate: It has to do with the effect of Donald Trump on politics going forward from 2016. Otter has joined Trump’s campaign as an honorary chair, but most other major Republican leaders in the state have kept a lower profile. How will Trump and his advocates be viewed a year, or two years, from now? In some parts of the state – substantial parts of southern Idaho, to start with – Trump is not very popular at all, and a touchy subject for many Republicans to address.

But the future of the Republican Party will be very much up for grabs after this year’s campaign is over, and that contest will be active in Idaho as it will be elsewhere. Where will Little and Fulcher come down on it?

The campaign is beginning, even now.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


The Idaho state Republicans have opened several local field offices, evidently for the duration of the campaign season, in Lewiston, Moscow and Hailey, and according to reports, another is planned in west Boise.

The latter is only a few miles away from state party headquarters in downtown Boise. These new offices do have something in common: They are located in most of those few places in Idaho where competitive legislative races are underway. (The Democrats may be setting up shop a little more informally.)

Not much of Idaho is really up for grabs in this year’s election, partly because most districts in Idaho are too partisan-lopsided to allow for close races; but there are a few. It’s also possible some other races could start to spark. Only about 80 days are left, but even in Idaho the unpredictable can happen.

Closest thing to ground zero for serious competition right now, again in this cycle as before, is district 15, where the two House Republican incumbents, Lynn Luker and Patrick McDonald, are being challenged heavily by Democrats Steve Berch – his third hard-charging run in this district – and Jake Ellis, both raising and spending money comparable to the incumbents. Up to now, Republicans have won every time out in this west Boise district, but the margins have shrunk, and the outcome of these races is hard to predict.

The districts based around Moscow and Lewiston have been among the most competitive in recent years, and two years ago the House Democratic leader, John Rusche, won re-election at Lewiston by 50 votes. No one is taking any votes for granted in these places – Districts 5 and 6. While the Senate seats here do look set for incumbent re-elections, the four House races all show signs of being competitive.

The unusual spot for a Republican local office is Hailey, the Blaine County seat which is almost as solidly Democratic as any community in Idaho – and taken together with Ketchum, maybe more than any. The legislative delegation from this area has been mostly Democratic for a generation.

But while the district includes the Democratic Wood River Valley it also includes more Republican territory reaching out to Shoshone, Fairfield, Gooding and Wendell, and the Democratic advantage is not enormous. One of the House seats is now occupied by Republican Steve Miller, and the other, held for a dozen years by Democrat Donna Pence, is now (with her retirement) open. Democrat Sally Toone of Gooding seems reasonably well positioned to keep the seat blue (Pence is her campaign manager), but Republicans seem to be taking seriously the opportunity an open seat is giving them, and Alex Sutter, a businessman at Richfield, may be a strong prospect.

These are not the only significant legislative races in Idaho this year, of course. Sometimes political explosions come out of nowhere, as in last week’s instance of state Senator Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom, and Representative Christy Perry, R-Nampa, after news media reports that the two married legislators had an affair. Both are on the ballot in November and, partly because both live in solidly Republican districts, seemed to be headed toward re-election. Now their races have become harder to measure.

This doesn’t look like an especially competitive year, and the roster of Idaho legislative candidates hasn’t produced a large list of fascinating candidates. But sometimes races take on interest when something new happens, and candidates look more interesting in hindsight, when you see what they’ve accomplished.

We’re heading into the home stretch.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


One of the online places political junkies get their fix – it’s really hard to stay away for long – is the fivethirtyeight.com web site and especially its election forecast section.

There are other polling analysis sites around the web, but 538, led by the remarkable statistician Nate Silver, is the most sophisticated. Most prominently it has a section showing, based on current information, how the candidates for president are doing. It updates the information whenever a new data point becomes available, which may be several times in a day, or even several times in an hour. Every time I check back in, it seems to have changed. And there’s more: The site offers three rounds of current estimates, the “now cast,” which estimates who probably would win and by how much if the election were held now; the “poll only,” which analyzes polls and nothing else; and the “polls-plus,” which adds in economic, historic and other factors.

As I write this, 538 estimates Democrat Hillary Clinton has an 86.3% chance of beating Republican Donald Trump, according to “polls only.” The number will change, up or down, by the time you read this.

538 also breaks down the probability estimates by state. As I write this, the odds Trump will win Idaho have been calculated – polls-only – at 96.3%. It is the third highest probability of a Trump win in the country, behind only West Virginia and (in first place) Oklahoma (at 98.7%). The polls-plus probability of a Trump win in in Idaho in November hit 99.1%, which is almost as close to a certainty as 538 gets, while the now-cast (if the election were held today) is at 98.2%. The now-cast estimates that in Idaho, Trump would get 54.6% of the vote, Clinton 35.7% and Libertarian Gary Johnson 7.8%.

You can see a consistent pattern here.

Some states, especially many of the battlegrounds, are polled frequently, but Idaho isn’t, which creates an obstacle for analysts like 538. They’re relying in large part on three polls from Dan Jones & Associates.

Polling analysts put a lot of attention into not so much the snapshots that individual polls can generate, but the trend lines – are numbers rising or falling over time – and comparisons between pollsters, when those are available. In Idaho, those numbers have been mostly stable all year.

Idaho’s neighboring states have been a little more variable, swinging around significantly during July (the month of conventions) in blue Washington and Oregon, red Utah and Montana (though not red Wyoming, which stayed stable) and purple Nevada. In the first couple of weeks of August, however, all have begun to settle into familiar patterns.

The most interesting of the neighbors – in the possibility it might break from familiar patterns – is Utah. Utah actually has been polled with some regularity this year, and by several pollsters. Trump is given an 80% probability (polls only) of winning it, but that’s far less than Idaho or Wyoming. At 80% probability, you have an operating assumption that Trump will take the state, but the chance of an upset is not completely off the charts. Put another way, the chance Trump may lose Utah is greater than the chance that he wins the November election. If he did lose Utah, might that affect the Idaho percentages in reflection of how the large LDS vote might turn?

Utah is one of several western states of interest, in having polling numbers that force both parties to keep a wary eye on them. Nevada and Arizona are near-battlegrounds, Colorado is in the gray area for battleground status, and party activists might be wise to keep an eye on Montana, where Trump has a probability of winning now sitting at 76%, which is less than secure.

For the time being, though, after all the post-convention talk about changes in the races, Idaho still looks pretty well locked down.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus


The state Department of Labor last week released a statistic that policy makers might want to wrap their minds around, as a significant broad-brush indicator about Idaho and a question to ponder as they consider what sort of state Idaho should be.

Consider the people who graduate from Idaho colleges and universities, one year after graduation. (The study was conducted of graduates from 2010 to 2014.)

Of those former students who were in-state residents, about 77 percent stayed in the state, “working in Idaho jobs.” The report said “The other 23 percent of in-state graduates either left to work in another state, took a federal government job, joined the military or worked in some other kind of self-employment category. In some cases, they may still be looking for work in their field, continuing on to graduate school or to another educational program.”

Five years later, about 67 percent still were in the state.

Of those who were out of state students, just 39 percent stayed in the state after one year, and just 28 percent five years later. (“Out of state” students were those considered non-residents at the time they entered the college of university, whether or not they became Idaho residents during the time of their studies.)

That’s a big gap, about two to one. What would account for it?

As an out of stater when I first came to the University of Idaho, but who stayed in Idaho long afterward, the question and the results hit home.

The department speculated that family or other ties may be part of what keeps many of those in-state students in place. That may be about right. The study added, “Other factors include types of degrees and programs offered. Some degrees and programs are highly marketable all over the country and the world, making those students more mobile and attractive to employers outside Idaho. Geographic location of the institution is another factor. Some colleges and universities are located in college towns, closer to bordering states where students are more likely to take their degrees to other more economically viable cities outside of the state. And, some postsecondary institutions are already located in thriving and growing economic urban hubs, creating local and immediate job opportunities for graduates eager to enter the workforce.”

The fact that Eastern Idaho Technical College and the College of Southern Idaho, both located in areas relatively far from metro areas and where the student population may be especially based from the local area, tends to back up that idea.

What the institutions aren’t doing as much, which probably is happening in other places and might be useful in Idaho, is not only drawing in but retaining talented students from other states. The students are coming – lower costs at the Idaho institutions may be one reason – but they’re not staying.

Why isn’t Idaho keeping those students? Is it a lack of jobs, or is there some other major consideration?

That might usefully be the subject of a future DOL report: For that large majority of students who come but don’t stay in Idaho, why aren’t they sticking around?

Idaho might benefit from the answer to that question.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus